At the Polokwane conference five years ago, the African National Congress (ANC) courageously pledged to halve unemployment from its 2004 level of 30% to 15% by 2014. With unemployment now at 25.5% that goal has clearly not been attained. Most unfortunately for Jacob Zuma and his team, the global financial crisis hit within months of their election.
So, after the longest unbroken period of growth during which unemployment fell as low as 23%, a downturn and a job-loss bloodbath followed. The country is yet to bounce back sufficiently from the downturn and has still not recovered all of the 1-million jobs lost during the crisis.
While the global downturn, in part, provided the ANC with an "out" in missing the target, the bigger question in evaluating the party’s success in job creation is whether the government did the things it could have to make the employment picture look better.
› Policy certainty key to more jobs
› Digital migration to bring more choice
A success of the Zuma leadership was that, at a political level at least, job creation was elevated above other priorities, says Miriam Altman, a member of the National Planning Commission and research fellow at the Human Sciences Research Council.
Policy makers developed a keener sense of the need to evaluate the employment effects of their actions, although many interpreted this to mean that government departments should themselves employ more people.
The prioritisation of employment further found some resonance in economic policies. For instance, it is the desire for growth and jobs that lies behind government plans to expand public infrastructure as well as a raft of industrial and procurement policies.
On the industrial policy front, improved incentives, a greater emphasis on beneficiation, and support measures for industry have all come in. However, the jury is still out on whether they will have much of an employment effect.
Interest rates have also fallen dramatically, in an effort to stimulate economic activity. This development was not unrelated to a letter Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan sent Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus in February 2010 in which he urged that both employment and inflation be taken into account when determining monetary policy.
While there have been successes, according to Dr Altman, there are also areas that have not delivered in line with expectations. Examples are persistently poor education outcomes, limited impact of small business programmes, and failure to meaningfully implement the commitment to 30-day payments on invoices. In addition, there has been slow infrastructure roll-out and diminished capacity at local government level to deliver basic services.
Confusion about "the rules of the game" in economic regulation have also created uncertainty that has subdued investment.
Dr Altman says even if the global slowdown had not occurred, unemployment might not have reached 15% by 2014 in the absence of policy implementation corrections. However, she argues, it was important to set an "aspirational" target rather than a vague statement of intent to help guide policy evaluation.
It will be important that the ANC sets a new job creation target in Mangaung for aspirational reasons. But to achieve it, more serious attention will need to be paid to the environment in which it hopes that jobs will be created.